Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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September 21, 2020

6 Month Sleep Regression: Causes, Signs and How to Deal with It

Any time you hear “sleep regression,”  I want you to think Growth and Distraction.  Your baby is growing physically or neurologically and that is distracting her from going to sleep.  It doesn't mean your baby can't sleep, but it may be interrupted. 

If your happy baby has recently turned into a sleepless nightmare, you’re not alone. The 6 month sleep regression marks a major milestone in your baby's development that can turn their sleep habits upside down. As a busy parent trying to juggle a career and a family, a fussy baby with disrupted nighttime sleep can leave you exhausted and overwhelmed.

The good news? The 6 month sleep regression is temporary. Your baby's sleep patterns change as they grow but it doesn't mean it can't recede. By understanding what’s happening and implementing a few key sleep training techniques, you can help your baby (and yourself) weather this storm. This guide will provide you with tips and strategies to survive the 6 month regression and come out the other side with a well-rested, happier baby.

What is the 6 Month Sleep Regression?

Around 6 months, your baby's circadian rhythm has a leap and matures in a good way.  Often this is a time that most babies drop down to 2 naps and have a 2-3 hours of sleep during the day as naps. . Where before they slept soundly like a newborn, now their sleep is more adult-like, with distinct cycles of REM and deep sleep. However, because of their increasing awareness, at this stage, when your baby stirs in the night they are more likely to fully wake up, disrupting their sleep routine. Separation anxiety, learning new skills like rolling over, and growth spurts can also contribute to frequent night waking and trouble sleeping.

Signs of a Sleep Regression:  (at any age)

  1. Early morning wake ups - 5:30 am and earlier
  2. Short naps when naps when you did have longer naps. 
  3. Bedtime resistance or nap resistance
  4. More frequent night waking

Do all babies go through a 6 month sleep regression?

Babies develop at different rates and so some of you might be in the midst of a raging sleep regression at 6 months, while others may be having their best sleep yet! Developmental changes can vary in their timing. In addition if this sleep regression is related to teething, a distraction, then your 6 month sleep regression could be your friend's baby's 9 month sleep regression if that's when their first bottom teeth appear. Teething times vary wildly child to child.

Potential Causes of the 6 Month Sleep Regression

  1. Staying awake more than 2.5 hours before bedtime. Most kids do best with a 2.5 hour awake time at this age. Your baby is exhausted by bedtime and it manifests with trouble settling into sleep and early 5am  wake ups. Often parents stretch bedtime so that baby's sleep schedule is consistent day to day, but it's okay to have a fluctuating bedtime based on last nap.

  2. Not enough nap time during the day. Your baby needs 2-3 hours of nap time during the day.   Most kids this age need 3 naps.  It is too early for most babies to be on 2 naps.  The 3-2 nap transition doesn't usually happen until 8 months of age on average.   The third nap at 6 months is essential as a little cat nap to tide baby over until bedtime.

  3. Teething. Your baby surfaces from a light sleep cycle in the morning and is distracted by the discomfort in her gums which prevents her from going back to sleep.   Teeth appear at a variety of ages and the exact duration of teething isn't concrete.  Some babies may teeth for just a few days while other it feels like weeks to their tired parents. 

  4. Motor leaps.  Your baby is learning to roll, hover on all fours or sit up.  She surfaces from sleep and is distracted by wanting to practice or just thinking about that skill.

What are the signs of Teething? 

Teething is a normal developmental stage for infants and toddlers as their teeth begin to emerge through the gums. The signs and symptoms of teething can vary widely among children, but there are several common indicators:

  1. Increased Drooling: As teeth begin to push through the gums, many babies drool more than usual.

  2. Gum Swelling and Sensitivity: The area where a tooth is coming in may be tender, swollen, or reddish.

  3. Chewing Behavior: Babies often seek to relieve pressure in their gums by biting on hard objects.

  4. Irritability or Fussiness: The discomfort of teething can make babies more irritable or fussy.

  5. Trouble Sleeping: The discomfort can also disrupt sleeping patterns.

  6. Rejecting Food: Due to sore gums, babies might start to refuse to eat or drink.

  7. Low-grade Fever: Occasionally, teething might be accompanied by a low-grade fever, generally considered to be less than 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).

  8. Rubbing Face and Ears: Some babies rub their cheeks or tug at their ears due to the pain in their gums spreading to the cheeks and ears.

The only sure sign of teething is that you have increased fussiness, disrupted sleep AND you actually see a tooth pop through.  Once the tooth has appeared, generally the pain recedes, but then another one tends to be on it's way. 

How to Tell if This is a Sleep Regression or a Bigger issue? 

If your baby is an independent sleeper you will be able to recognize a 6 month sleep regression more easily than a baby who is reliant on someone to put her to sleep.  It’s much easier to see a regression in a great sleeper than a baby who woke up a lot in the night anyways.

An independent sleeper is a baby that has healthy sleep routines and who can put herself to sleep at bedtime and naps without anything external relaxing her beforehand.  There is no rocking, feeding or pacifier as part of the bedtime routine.  This is the goal of “sleep teaching” to have an independent sleeper who can put herself back to sleep in the night if she wakes up, which all humans do in the night. 

Top Tips to Survive the 6 Month Sleep Regression:

  • Stick to a consistent, calming bedtime routine. A predictable wind-down signals sleep time.
  • Make sure baby is going to awake instead of drowsy which often means asleep. This helps them learn to self-soothe at bedtime when the drive to sleep is the strongest.
  • Limit daytime nap quantity to 2-3 hours. 
  • Avoid stimulative play and food before bedtime.
  • Use white noise to drown out disruptive noises.
  • Offer a lovey or small stuffie for comfort. Just be sure it meets safety guidelines.
  • Ride it out! Stay consistent and it could pass. 

How to Get Through This 6-Month Sleep Regression:

  1. TIMING.  Focus on the timing of sleep.  Most 6 month olds need to be back asleep by 2.5 hours. After that you risk having more night waking and early morning wake ups.

  2. Take away the distraction.  If your kiddo is teething, what can you offer to minimize pain and distraction.  Cold teething rings before nap or bedtime can help, but also talk to your pediatrician about pain killers.  Give her ample time to practice motor skills during the day.  Lots of floor and tummy time.

  3. Know that this too shall pass.  It will take 1-2 weeks to get through a regression related to motor and teething. 

Why the 6-month sleep regression might not pass

Sleep Training Method and Strategies:

If you’re still struggling after a few weeks and you've realized that your child relies on you to be made relaxed to fall asleep.  It might be a good time to think about changing you're baby's sleep associations so you can get longer periods of sleep at night and in the daytime.  Sleep training, or sleep teaching as I like to call it,  may help get your baby sleeping through the night again. 

​In my Amazon Best Seller, The Helping Babies Sleep Method, I teach you a step by step approach to teaching your little one to sleep to get over sleep problems for good!  6 months is a good period of time to be working on healthy sleep habits.   

Book Link and image 

The 6 month sleep regression can be exhausting, but have faith that it will pass! Stay consistent with your routine and get creative about getting extra rest when you can. If you’re still struggling after 8 weeks, talk to your pediatrician. With time, patience and a few sleep training tweaks, you’ll be back to a good night’s sleep soon.

Case Study #1

One of my readers of The Helping Babies Sleep Method lamented about her baby being “content but awake” for 45 minutes to 1 hour in the middle of the night and then starting to cry.   When I probed further we found that her little person had just learned to put herself into a sitting position.  She was waking in the night, like all humans do, and then her mind was thinking about that new motor skill.  These thoughts were distracting her from relaxing back down into sleep.  Then after being awake for 45 minutes she was feeling quite tired and crying for someone to help her back down into sleep.  Mom stayed her course.  She did one check with a “it’s sleeping time” around 10 minutes into the wake up and then tried to catch some sleep while her little one was just hanging out.  Once she started to cry she did another check at 10 minutes.  Her little one then put herself back down just after that check.  If you are responsible for “making your little one sleep,” meaning she can’t go down with you rocking or feeding, you’re just waiting there to be called. 

Case Study #2 - Teething

My previous client reported that her 6 month old son who had been sleeping 11 hours with 1 night feed was now waking up 2x a night and crying.  During the day he was visibly drooling and putting his hands to his mouth.  She was sure a tooth was on its way.  6 months is a very average age for a first tooth to come through. 

Teething is a hard thing to manage because the pain with teething is often acute before the tooth pierces through.  Once you can see the tooth the pain has receded.  It’s really a hind sight diagnosis where you’re like… “oh!  That’s why you were so fussy these past few days.”  Teething can also ebb and flow.  Meaning your baby is fussy and has some disrupted sleep for a few days but then it gets better and then gets worse again.

My client was worried about undoing all the hard work she’d put into sleep teaching.  What to do?  I believe that we help kids who can’t help themselves.  Her kiddo has self soothing skills and now is clearly uncomfortable, we pick them up and rock them a little.  You might try and avoid nursing back to sleep if that had been your previous sleep challenge.  Rocking can help distract your little person about what is bugging them and distracting them from relaxing into sleep.  Will this undo all your sleep teaching?  It depends on your child’s temperament.  Some kids go right back to sleeping like a champ after teething but some kids might continue to wake up having enjoyed the rocking and wanting more.

In conclusion, you may or may not feel the 6 month sleep regression.  However, if your baby has always been waking up more than 1x a night after 5 months of age your baby might be waking out of habit, asking for you to help put him/her back to sleep.  You might want to read more about “Self Soothing Skills” and why your baby needs them.

Looking for more guidance on teaching your baby to sleep long age-appropriate stretches? 

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